The drug overdose death of Ramsey Mueller, a probationary Tacoma firefighter in the prime of life, is in many ways the latest telling of a contemporary national tragedy. At age 27, Mueller walked the high wire between enormous promise and serious addiction, only to become another young casualty in the nation’s raging opioid epidemic.
On a Saturday morning last summer, his mother found him dead on his bed wearing his Tacoma Fire uniform. It happened three days after he was sent home from work for erratic behavior, two days after checking into rehab and a day after resigning from the department. The cause of death was deemed an accidental heroin overdose.
Mueller’s story, writ large, speaks of a generational affliction. The U.S. overdose rate for 25-to-34-year-old whites was five times worse in 2014 than in 1999. And in 2015, for the first time ever, the total number of heroin-related deaths in America exceeded gun homicides, according to new federal health reports.
But on a smaller scale, the story of the downward spiral of this firefighter family son, reported by News Tribune staff writer Sean Robinson, points to a singular Tacoma problem, which city and fire department leaders must take responsibility for and resolve to correct.
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Mueller had a history of drug issues that the TNT was able to track using public documents. They ranged from an arrest in Fircrest for carrying cocaine when he was 15 years old, to an arrest in a Southern California parking lot in 2015 after police found him strung out on meth and heroin. The latter drug he admitted injecting into his neck with a syringe.
Somehow all this escaped the notice of Tacoma’s hiring hierarchy — an information gap all the more peculiar considering Mueller’s mother, Faith, is deputy fire chief.
From an original pool of 1,100 applicants in the fall of 2015, Mueller’s excellent score on a written test placed him in the top 40. It’s understandable that the department would cast a wide net early, hoping to tap into the diversity of the community. Moreover, Tacoma had recently adopted a “Ban the Box” policy, blocking city officials from excluding applicants with felony records.
What’s indefensible is how Mueller withstood layers of more intensive screening to join the 16-member class of firefighters. Although he’d never been convicted of a felony, there were other red flags if anyone had bothered to look. Among them: a police response after a strange skirmish in a University Place apartment, an informal warning from a fellow fire chief in Browns Point and an outstanding warrant from his California arrest.
Tacoma Fire Chief James Duggan knows what’s at stake. “The public trust is very important to us,” he told the TNT.
This trust has now been jeopardized by hiring practices that gave a drug abuser access to people’s homes, delegated him to protect their lives and property, and enabled him to drive a fire engine down city streets while obviously and significantly impaired three days before he died.
It was jeopardized by a command staff that looked the other way.
Duggan said he expects department staff would divulge information about another employee’s drug history, and Faith Mueller failed to meet that expectation. But he would not use the word “duty.”
We will, though criticizing a grieving parent is not easy. As deputy chief, she owes a duty to the city, her department and the public — a responsibility that superseded her motherly impulse to see her son secure a good job in an honorable family profession.
While vague on details, Duggan has pledged to examine the hiring system. Adding more precise questions about drug use in applicant questionnaires would be a good starting point. Random drug tests are worth discussing. And the department should consider psychological evaluations for job candidates, which other area fire agencies and Tacoma Police already do.
Close oversight must be provided by the new city manager, when hired, and the City Council’s public safety committee.
For now, fire commanders should waste no time taking off the blinders, exercising the discretion they already have, and applying a measure of curiosity and skepticism when bringing new employees on board.
The city’s commitment to furnish employee mental health and addiction resources also must be made crystal clear.
Ramsey Mueller was not a bad person; he was a young man with big dreams and a rescuer’s heart who couldn’t save himself from a monstrous sickness.
“We’ve got to get past seeing drug use in our community as a moral failing,” Duggan said.
True words. But bestowing a Tacoma Fire uniform and patch to an active drug user, then handing him the keys to the public trust — that’s a failing that calls for a five-alarm response.